Category Archives: Mental Enrichment

Fearful Dogs

Last week we discussed brittle dogs, those dogs who have a hard time coping with stress despite the best start in life. The dogs we discussed were born that way, and couldn’t deal with scary or uncomfortable situations even with their golden-spoon upbringing. But brittle dogs can also be created in spite of a solid genetic basis. Today, let’s discuss those dogs who don’t have the best start in life.

Some dogs lose the socialization lottery. Maybe your dog was born or raised in a puppy mill or kept in someone’s barn or garage. Maybe your dog was a stray. Maybe your dog grew up in a no kill shelter that didn’t have enough volunteers to get all of the dogs out and about or which kept puppies sequestered due to concerns about disease. Maybe you just didn’t know about the importance of socialization and so didn’t get your dog to puppy class before his socialization window closed between twelve and sixteen weeks.

Photo by Peter Kemmer

Photo by Peter Kemmer

Whatever the reason, if your dog missed out on critical socialization he may still be okay. Or he might not be. If you have a brittle dog whose early experiences were less-than-ideal, studies show that you could have a long haul ahead of you.

Ongoing studies on Romanian orphans have shown us just how crucial early development can be. The “socialization window” during which the majority of social brain development outside of the womb seems to take place appears to be about two years in people compared to the shorter three to four months for puppy development. However, many of the developmental processes are identical.

So, here’s what we know: children with neglectful upbringings do not develop the same way as children with supportive and enriched environments. Their brains are physically different. They develop less white matter, or myelin tract, which leads to deficits in their abilities to form neural connections. The neural pathways in their brain are weaker and the electrical activity of their brains is significantly reduced from children who grew up in supportive environments.

In addition to this alarming physical deficit, many of the children from neglectful environments also appear to suffer from adrenal impairment. Their bodies produce significantly less (or in fewer cases, significantly more) cortisol, a stress hormone, than other children’s bodies, and this causes them to show altered stress responses.

The parallels to our dogs who come from neglectful, unenriched environments are obvious. Many of the dogs with the very worst behavioral issues that I work with have low heart rates even in situations that obviously cause them a good deal of stress. These dogs sometimes appear to suffer learning disabilities and to have issues with impulse control. Their owners report that the dogs develop new fears at the drop of a hat, but that it takes months or years to get over any fear even with appropriate behavioral interventions.

Taking all of this in can be overwhelming to the owner of a brittle dog. If your dog’s history suggests developmental disabilities, it’s important to realize that your dog is not a normal dog. He has special needs. Asking your dog to suck it up and go to the dog park or to stop cowering behind the couch every time visitors come over dismisses the very real disability your dog lives with every day. It’s as insensitive as calling someone in a wheelchair lazy or laughing at the retired combat veteran next door when he asks you to please give him a head’s up before you light off firecrackers. We wouldn’t ask a dog who was missing a limb or an eye to engage in behaviors which were potentially dangerous to him, but because we cannot see the damage to the brain of our previously-neglected dog with our naked eyes we oftentimes forget to give him the same respect. It’s unconscionable to ignore a disability just because it’s not instantly visible.

So, how can you help your brittle dog? Once you acknowledge that your dog needs some special help, the research is very promising! There’s a lot we can do to help these dogs become more confident, happy, and behaviorally healthy with some simple interventions.

First of all, the five suggestions for brittle dogs with positive socialization histories apply here. Go review them now. We’ll wait.

Finished? Great! In addition to supporting your dog in all of the ways mentioned last week, research also suggests that you work to create new neural pathways for your pet. The brain is remarkably plastic, and new neural pathways develop anytime we learn a new skill or experience a new sensation. The trick is to do this without putting more pressure on your dog. Introducing your dog to TTouch obstacle work, agility (with a skilled instructor who will free-shape your dog to interact with the obstacles on his or her own terms), trick training, or canine nose work can allow them to interact with their environment in new and interesting ways. Feeding from puzzle toys or using other search and find games can also be helpful. Anything that engages your dog’s curiosity is good! Be patient and let him or her progress at the pace that makes sense for them. Encourage exploration and applaud small efforts.

The progress many of my clients see in their previously fearful dogs when we create safe places, actively teach coping skills, socialize appropriately, utilize classical conditioning, consider medication, and promote the development of new neural pathways through nose work or trick training is absolutely astounding. These dogs flourish in ways that they’ve never done before. They grow and they learn and they surprise the hell out of us at every turn. They impress us to tears. There’s nothing quite like the first moment when a fearful dog completes a successful search in nose work class or works up the courage to eat in the presence of a stranger. These magical moments of bravery show us how hard these special dogs try and how very much they can overcome with patience and a plan.

If you have a brittle dog, one of those special dogs who lost the socialization lottery, I hope this blog post has given you a better understanding of your dog’s very unique needs and a sense of hope at all that you can achieve together. I’d love to hear your stories, tips, and tricks about your own special dogs, so please share them in the comments section below!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by colemama on flickr.

Photo by colemama on flickr.

A dog can never tell you what she knows from the smells of the world, but you know, watching her, that you know almost nothing.

-Mary Oliver

Socializing your Dog: an Illustrated Guide

Thanks to Lili Chin of Doggie Drawings for collaborating with me on this socialization poster! You can click on the picture below to view the full sized version. Lili and I have previously worked together to create the illustrated guide to playing with your dog.

SocializingYourDog17x22

Do you have any socialization tips or tricks? Please share them in the comments below!

Gallery

Nose Work Class Photos

This gallery contains 18 photos.

We love K9 Nose Work! Any dog (and any handler!) can participate, and the dogs think it’s the best game ever. Check out these great shots from last week’s Beginning K9 Nose Work class by Laura Caldwell. Want to start playing with … Continue reading

Lessons from Shedd: Why You Don’t Really Want a Smart Dog

“What a smart dog!”

As I worked with Mischief, an adolescent mixed breed, the onlookers watched in awe. Mischief was engaged and happy. Her stubby tail wagged and she responded quickly and precisely to every cue she was given. She watched me intently, ignoring the small crowd of Beginning Obedience students gathered around us. Several people remarked positively on her apparent intelligence.

I’ll let you in on a secret: Mischief isn’t that bright. She just enjoys training, and understands the clicker game.

This is ideal, because she’s a wonderful pet. She’s also a great performance dog: at 10 months of age, she’s earned her first rally obedience excellent title with all first-place wins.

Mischief (Photo by Sara Brueske)

This common misperception about intelligence happens with any well-trained animal. People are amazed at how “smart” the beluga whales, dolphins, sea lions, and otters are at the Shedd Aquarium. However, IQ has little to do with it.

We can train sharks, goldfish, rodents, lizards, and hermit crabs. The laws of learning apply to all species, and Ken Ramirez is fond of saying that you can train an earthworm and a graduate student the same way.

Many dog owners are quick to tell me how smart their dogs are. I always respond with my condolences. Here’s the thing: smart dogs are much harder to live with.

Smart dogs get bored quickly. They’re creative, and quick to figure out their own entertainment. They’re more likely to test the limits, push at boundaries, and question rules. They require more from their owners: more training, more attention, more play and exercise, and above all, more skill. My smart dog, Layla, figured out how to open up the fridge door and back gate on her own – something Mischief would never dream of trying to puzzle out. Which dog would you prefer to live with?

Intelligence has nothing at all to do with trainability. Sure, a smart dog may learn a skill more quickly. However, that same dog is also more likely to test your criteria for that skill. Once she knows what you want, she’s going to start trying variations on that behavior to see just how hard she really has to work.

A less intelligent dog may take longer to learn the skill initially, but once she knows what you want, she’s going to be happy continuing to comply without continually offering improvements or modifications on the behavior.

So, how do you find an easy dog if intelligence doesn’t have anything to do with it? Most people actually want a biddable animal, one who is bred to work and cooperate with people. Breeds who are bred for cooperativeness, such as sporting, toy, and herding breeds, tend to be easier to train than those breeds who have been bred to work independently, such as terriers and hounds. This trait, called biddability, is what you’re probably looking for if you think you want a “smart” dog.

Is your dog smart? Biddable? Please share your stories and comments in the section below!

Lessons From Shedd: “When can I get rid of the treats?”

“When can I get rid of the treats?”  This is one of the most common questions we receive in our Beginning and Puppy training classes. If ever anyone was focused on the wrong question in training, this may be it. Let’s explore this common training issue.

The sea lions at Shedd are rewarded for a job well done with fish or squid. Photo by Sage Ross.

People can’t wait to stop using food in training. Some people feel that their dog should listen to them because of their natural authority or “alpha-ness.” Some want their dog to just do it because he loves them. Some feel that using food somehow cheapens their relationship. I disagree.

Food enhances relationships. How many family counselors suggest eating at least one meal together a day? Why do couples go out to eat at nice restaurants on dates? Why do we bake cake or other goodies for those we love on special occasions? Eating together enhances your bond. Taking the time to provide another with food shows that you care about them.

Here’s the deal: your dog has to eat. In fact, he has to eat every day. Most dogs eat multiple times a day. Regardless of your view on using food in training, you still have to feed your dog. His food can be used to train him. Why waste this opportunity?

One of the ways in which exotic animal trainers are able to achieve such complex and reliable behaviors is through their use of the animal’s daily food ration in training. Let me be clear here: the animals eat regardless of what happens in the training session. If an animal doesn’t want to train, he or she is still fed. Withholding food is cruel and unnecessary. If your animal isn’t interested in training, this is probably due to operator error. Are you putting too much pressure on him? Being too stingy? Too unclear? Asking for too much? Training in too distracting of an environment? Regardless, your dog is giving you great information. Take a good, hard look at your training program, and start over.

Understand, I’m not saying that food has to be the only training tool you use. This would be stupid and short-sighted. Use a variety of secondary and tertiary reinforcers. A smart trainer keeps things interesting for the animal. Neither am I saying that you should reward your dog for every single behavior. Once an animal understands a behavior, you can switch to rewarding him intermittently.

Also understand, I am not recommending using food as a bribe. If your dog will only listen when you have a cookie in your hand, you’re probably using that food incorrectly as a bribe rather than a reward. Rewards come after a job well done.

All this said, it makes me incredibly sad when someone can think of nothing other than how soon he or she can stop rewarding their dog with food. Why would you want to? You’re going to give that food to your dog anyway at some point. Make it count. Enhance that bond. Reward your dog for a job well done. Share food with your best friend. Eat together, grow together, build that relationship.

The Cortisol Vacation

We’ve written about how stress impacts your dog, as well as the dangers of chronic stress. But what do you do if your dog finds daily life stressful? How can you reduce your dog’s overall stress level to keep him under threshold?

Photo by Liama Hal

The first thing to realize if you have a chronically stressed or anxious dog is that your dog cannot help being this way. It doesn’t feel good to always be on edge, and if your dog could develop coping strategies on his own he would have already done so. If this has been an ongoing problem for your dog, he’s not just going to get over it on his own. Chronic stress is both a physical and mental problem, and we need to treat both your dog’s body and his brain to help him overcome it. Today we’ll discuss the first step in helping your dog heal.

Remember that stress causes physical changes in the body, including an elevation in certain hormones that can last two to six days. When I work with a client whose dog is chronically stressed, this is the first area we need to address. Every time your dog has a stress reaction, those hormones spike. This means that one of the first things we need to address is how to avoid or minimize the things that trigger such a response.

For most dogs, we need to temporarily change their environments and routines to avoid common triggers. This could mean changing the time of day you walk your dog, covering or blocking access to your fence or windows so that your dog can’t bark at people or other dogs going past, or avoiding visitors to your home for a period of time. It oftentimes means taking a break from dog training classes or dog sports competitions and avoiding travel. We may need to change your dog’s exercise from exciting ball play to leisurely “sniff walks” on a long leash or increase mental exercise by feeding out of puzzle toys.

Many trainers call this period of trigger avoidance a “cortisol vacation,” referring to one of the common stress hormones. If your dog has been locked in a destructive stress spiral for awhile, it’s going to take time for him to return to a more balanced state: four to six weeks is common for many of my clients.

Many owners worry that their dog will be unhappy during this time, but after about a week of adjustment to the new routine, most dogs appear quite content with their new, calmer way of life. Remember, stress is hard work, and it feels better not to be on edge all the time. Sometimes I need to work with owners to help them learn what a relaxed and happy dog looks like. Some people are so used to seeing their dog in an aroused state that they mistake high arousal and stimulation for happiness, not realizing that their softly napping dog is actually in a better (happier!) place.

While the cortisol vacation is a great place to start for chronically stressed dogs, it’s not a long-term solution. Rather, the goal of this break from life is simply to help the dog find a calmer place from which he’ll be better able to learn new coping strategies. This is a temporary respite from the craziness that he can’t yet deal with. Oftentimes a cortisol vacation is necessary before I can even begin working with a dog, since a dog who is too locked into a destructive stress spiral simply isn’t in a mental state that’s conducive to learning. During this downtime the dog’s owner and I will often start instituting other stress reduction techniques that will be more helpful long-term, as well as visiting with the dog’s veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist to rule out any medical causes for the dog’s behavior.

The important thing to remember here is that this sort of avoidance is temporary and is being put in place with the longer-term goal of helping the dog learn better ways to deal with life. Lifelong avoidance of anything and everything that stresses your dog is neither practical nor helpful, and may do more harm than good as your dog could lose the coping abilities he already has (limited as they may be). We cannot wrap our dogs in a bubble forever, much as we may wish to do so.

In future posts, we’ll discuss other tools to lower your dog’s stress level, as well as ways to teach him to cope with life. Have you ever adopted or worked with a dog who needed time to recover from high levels of stress? When do you think a cortisol vacation could be most helpful for a dog? Please comment below with your thoughts and questions!

K9 Nose Work

K9 Nose Work is a sport that was designed by Amy Herot, Ron Gaunt, and Jill Marie O’Brien. With over 50 years of detection work between the three, their focus was on designing a fun, inclusive activity that allowed a wide variety of dogs to use their instinctive abilities. This sport borrows from the activities of explosive, drug, or cadaver detection, allowing the dogs to experience the enjoyable sniffing part of these activities without the liability or risk of real detection or SAR (search and rescue) work.

Photo by bermudi on flickr

A wide variety of dogs attended our Introduction to K9 Nose Work seminar, and watching the different dogs work was the highlight of my weekend. K9 Nose Work is open to all dogs: shy dogs, old dogs, three-legged dogs, reactive dogs, high-drive dogs, deaf or blind dogs, hyper dogs, distractible dogs, anxious dogs, and regular everyday dogs. Any dog who is crate trained can participate, and every dog who participated in our workshop loved it! Timid dogs gained confidence throughout the day, and distractible dogs became more focused as they learned the game.

It was amazing to see how tired and happy the dogs were at the end of the day. Even though the dogs didn’t work for very long at once, they were exhausted! The combination of physical and mental exercise contributed to satisfy the dogs’ exercise needs, but I think that this alone doesn’t explain how very tired many of the dogs were. Rather, fulfilling their instinctive need to use their noses scratched a much deeper itch and wore them out in the same way that a long day of working tricky behavior consults wears me out. The dogs weren’t merely tired: they were fulfilled. They had successfully done something they enjoyed, and this promoted satisfaction at a deeper level than a mere game of fetch or walk around the block.

K9 Nose Work introduces dogs to the search game by having them search for a favorite toy or treat. This reward is hidden in a box in the search area, and the dog must find the target box among a variety of other boxes or items to get their reward. As the dogs gain proficiency at searching, more challenging puzzles are presented to them. The owner takes a very passive role at this time, allowing the dog to use their natural problem-solving abilities and gain in confidence and independence.

That’s not to say that the handler is unimportant, though. Rather, the dog learns to work as a team with his handler. Once he finds his target object, he communicates to the handler where it is in order to receive his reward. Handlers also learn to work as a team with their dog. Each dog has a distinct search behavior, and learning to read your individual dog’s changes in breathing, tail set, speed, or ear orientation is incredibly important if you are to be a good team mate to your dog.

Dogs eventually learn to search for their target scent in a variety of contexts. Competition involve four separate search elements, with a different target odor (100% essential oil placed on half a cotton swab) introduced at each level. The container search requires the dog to find the target odor in one of twenty identical containers (cardboard boxes, clean/empty paint cans, suitcases, etc). The interior building search requires the dog to work in an indoor area (such as a science classroom or office building), and the exterior search presents the target odor somewhere in an outdoor location. Finally, the car search requires the dog to find the target odor somewhere on the exterior of a vehicle (multiple vehicles are included, and only one has the target odor). Dogs solve complex problems, such as scents placed underneath or on top of objects or hidden inside novel containers.

Want to learn more about K9 Nose Work? Check out the NACSW website! We are also looking forward to holding nose game classes in the Rochester, MN area based on the information we learned this weekend. The dogs approve!

I smell what you mean.

Humans are visual animals. We rely on our eyes to gather information about the world around us. Our language of understanding relates to our vision (“I see what you mean.” “Look here, my point is that…” “I have a slightly different view of the matter.”). Large areas of our brain are devoted to processing visual information, and appearances effect everything from our personal relationships to the way we do business.

As important as vision is to us, so too is scent the primary focus for our dogs. Dogs have 220 million + scent receptors, compared to our measly 5 million. Large areas of your dog’s brain are devoted to olfaction, just as ours are devoted to vision. Our dogs have a very different way of relating to their world, one which we can only guess at. If they were to talk to us, they would likely replace our visual references with olfactory ones (“I smell what you mean.” “Sniff here, my point is that…” “I have a slightly different scent of the matter.”).

Simon ‘Kelp’ Keeping

This past weekend, Paws Abilities Dog Training hosted Jill Marie O’Brien and Kimberly Buchanan for an Introduction to K9 Nose Work seminar. Watching the dogs learn about this fun and fascinating sport was a real treat. Dogs love using their noses, and they’re extraordinarily good at doing so. Whether they were searching for a toy or treat, the dogs all exhibited incredible talent and problem solving abilities.

Dogs can sniff out drugs, explosives, and cadavers. They can alert their people to the presence of bedbugs, wood rot, or cancer. They can predict the onset of a seizure. They can find the one stick you touched amongst a giant pile of sticks or the pheasant you shot from across a field. They can track criminals, lost children, or foxes.

Using their noses is as fulfilling and enjoyable to dogs as using our eyes is to us. The joy you experience from looking at a meadow full of wildflowers or a gorgeous sunset over the lake is likewise experienced by your dog when he comes across a pile of raccoon scat or a squirrel carcass. One has only to watch the blissful expression on a dog’s face as he closes his eyes and lifts his head to sniff the wind to know how very important the sense of smell is to him.

Scent travels much like fog or mist. It falls from the source, rolling along the ground and dissipating the further away it goes. It is affected by temperature, air currents, and other objects. It bounces off surfaces and pools in low-lying areas. It may be vacuumed up along a wall or be pushed about by the wagging of a tail or the scuffing of your feet on the grass. Our dogs allow us to access the otherwise unreachable world of scent. Watching a dog work a scent back to the source tells us how the scent molecules are moving and gives us a peek into this incredible, alien world of olfaction.

There are many different scenting options available to dogs and their owners. From letting your dog explore new smells on a walk in a quiet field to teaching him to find your car keys to competing in tracking or K9 Nose Work or even training scent articles in competition obedience, we can offer our dogs many chances to use their natural abilities. Scent work can calm and focus hyper dogs or increase a timid dog’s confidence. It can give older or handicapped dogs a fulfilling job to do and reactive or aggressive dogs a safe chance to play.

Later this week we’ll explore the sport K9 Nose Work in more depth. In the meantime, what nose games do you play with your dog?

7 Things to Do With a Kong

We’ve talked before about how useful Kong toys can be to provide mental exercise, as well as some ideas on how to stuff them. Here are more ideas on how to get the most out of your dog’s Kong toys!

Photo by OakleyOriginals on flickr

  • Freeze it: Any wet or sticky food can be frozen into a Kong toy to provide a longer-lasting “Kongsicle.” Keep several prepared Kongs in the door of your freezer so you always have one ready at a moment’s notice for unexpected visitors or any other time when you might appreciate a puppy pacifier.
  • Microwave it: Mix some cheese in with some dry treats or kibble and microwave long enough to melt the cheese. Let the Kong cool before giving it to your pooch. This creates a very gooey treat that takes dogs a long time to extract.
  • Hang it from a tree: thread a rope through your dog’s Kong, and tie a knot in the rope on the small end of the Kong. Position the Kong toy with the large hole facing upwards, and fill it with your dog’s food. Throw the other end of the rope over a tree branch and hoist the Kong just high enough that your dog can easily reach it, but will need to jump up and bat at it to knock food out.
  • Scavenger hunt: stuff your dog’s meal into one or more Kongs and hide them throughout the house or yard.
  • Use it for grooming: A Kong filled with peanut butter or low fat cream cheese can give your dog something pleasant to focus on while you’re brushing him, trimming his nails, or attending to any other grooming tasks that he finds onerous.
  • Crate training: make your dog’s crate into a “magic Kong place” and you’ll create a dog who loves his crate for life!
  • Ice bucket Kongs: fill a bucket up with water or broth and one or more stuffed Kong toys, then freeze it overnight. In the morning, dump the giant ice cube into a kiddie pool or put the entire bucket in your dog’s crate. As the ice melts, your dog will discover the delicious Kong surprises inside.
These are just a few ideas of fun things to do with Kongs. Have another great idea? Please share it below!